ORLANDO, Fla. — The Equitable Food Initiative hopes that its “Responsibly Grown Farmworker Assured” label will elevate the status of those suppliers in the eyes of the produce buying community.

“From our perspective, the return (on investing in EFI) ought to be coming in terms of more business from the retailers,” Peter O’Driscoll, executive director of the EFI, a nonprofit organization.

At the EFI-member NatureSweet booth at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit expo, O’Driscoll said companies should reap the reward of investments in food safety culture and improving labor standards.

“We want to see the retail community doing more business with the companies that are stepping up and demonstrating they are abiding by the Ethical Charter,” he said, referring to the joint United Fresh Produce Association-PMA Produce Industry Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices.

Even if all retailers don’t give preference to suppliers who are making investments in farmworkers, O’Driscoll said the EFI is worth it.

“Regardless of whether the retailers back it up or not, the goal is that those costs around training and audits, we hope those can be recouped through productivity, efficiency, shrink reduction, recruitment/retentions costs and so forth,” he said. O’Driscoll said he is optimistic that retailers who have voiced support for EFI and the Ethical Charter will make that support count.

Walmart, Sam’s Club, Kroger, Costco and Wegmans are among the retail endorsers of the Ethical Charter so far.

EFI wants to help retailers identify better suppliers.

“We want to help shine a bright light on who are doing it right, and we think those (firms) are going to be the supply solution for the retail industry.


Growing influence

EFI issued its first certifications in 2014 and as of October had 28 certifications in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

In October, the company was about to add EFI certification from a produce company in Guatemala and was under contact with 20 different produce companies to implement its system.

NatureSweet, with about 12,000 employees and nearly 2,000 acres of greenhouses, was one of the first companies to become EFI certified, he said.

“We’ve learned as much from NatureSweet as they have from working with us; they had begun to invest in workforce development and worker engagement before they even met us,” he said.

O’Driscoll said the Food Safety Modernization Act highlights the need for prevention of food safety issues, and EFI is helping companies engage workers and instill a culture of food safety.

“You can have the best microbiologist in the business, you can have all kinds of mitigation strategies around food safety, but the question is ‘Does the worker in the field who’s going down the row and find deer poop, do they pick the berry or not when the primary incentive is piece rate?’”

From the perspective of EFI, O’Drisoll said worker training hinges on having a sense of belonging with the company.

The cost of EFI certification includes training, which entails sending trained facilitators to companies for about five days of training around EFI standards and then developing strategies to educating the rest of the work force. That training could run $12,000 to $15,000, depending on the length of the training and the where the company is.

EFI also conducts audits, but O’Driscoll said the goal is to become a solution to “audit fatigue” rather than one more “pain in the backside.”

EFI standards cover food safety, labor, and pest management, and O’Driscoll said one a goal is to become Global Food Safety Initiative accredited by late 2019.

“So our goal is to be a one-stop shop audit that satisfies the retailer requirements, the proprietary requirements as well as GFSI and one audit then would replace a whole bunch of separate audits,” that’s a place we want to be, by this time next year,” he said.

The board of EFI includes consumer groups, labor unions, supplier and retailers. While some in the industry have pushed back against union involvement, O’Driscoll said that isn’t as much the case today. No companies that have been EFI certified have been unionized so far, and a representative from grower Andrew & Williamson is president of the EFI governing board.

With early input from Costco, EFI developed a program to train and incentivize workers to perform due diligence and vigilance and monitoring between audits.

“In terms of additional levels of assurance, you could create value for the worker in terms of improved wages and working conditions, and you could create value for the supplier in terms of preferred supplier status with the kinds of retailers that would want this level of assurance,” he said.

Kathryn Ault, vice president of sales, said that NatureSweet believes in transforming the lives of its workers, an investment that has paid off.

“What we have today is a very highly productive, highly remunerated and very satisfied workforce,” she said. NatureSweet has developed a marketing program that highlights its work force on its website and labels.

“The partnership with EFI is making us better in making sure the training we give is sustainable,” Ault said.

O’Driscoll believes several retailers who helped drive the Ethical Charter process will put more importance on the issue of engaging with farm workers.

“I think what you’re going to see is increasing level of demand from the retail side around assurance programs, and that is creating huge opportunities for us,” he said.


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